Through his 22 years as host of “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno never left comedy. Since the late ’80s, he’s performed most every Sunday night at The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif. As a late-night host, Leno turned the venue into a testing ground for monologue material.
As a sold-out crowd at the Seneca Niagara Casino found out Saturday night, the club also kept Leno’s stand-up muscles in top shape. The 63-year-old, who also traveled (including to Niagara Falls) for stand-up gigs throughout his “Tonight Show” career, delivered a fast-paced and consistently funny 80-minute set of diverse material that was loosely unified by an age-versus-youth theme.
Most of the jokes were quick and punchy, delivered in the same style that TV viewers came to expect from Leno’s nightly monologues.
For example, Colorado and Washington – the first two states to legalize marijuana – both now have a short supply of pot. You used to be able to buy it on any street corner, Leno said, “but get the government involved, and now there’s a shortage!”
Leno informed the crowd that Salt Lake City was recently named the No. 1 gay city in America. Why? It’s population of Mormons. “They thought you spell it ‘more-men,’ ” Leno said.
Last year, Leno recalled, now-87-year-old Playboy founder Hugh Hefner married his then-26-year-old girlfriend, Crystal Harris.
“That’s what you call ‘bedpanning for gold,’ ” said Leno, swaying his arm back and forth.
The jowly Leno is a physical comic. He paced the stage, rarely pausing to sip water. He regularly ran his left hand through his silver hair, parted through the middle and flopping to his ears, and made use of his white-checked burgundy tie as a prop anytime he need to wave something or cover his mouth.
As comics go, Leno is the friendly type. He keeps his jokes PG-13 and tears into everyone while ripping into no one. In the middle of his set, he pointed to several audience members and asked what they do for a living.
“You own a pool store?” he said to one woman. “Well, Buffalo is the place to do that. Do you find things are dropping off this time of year? Maybe if this doesn’t work out, you can try sunscreen next.”
Then Leno asked if there were any teachers in the crowd. He found one who worked with preschoolers.
“So if you’re not drooling,” Leno said, “you get an A.”
Leno continued on the classroom bit: “The worst grade to teach is eighth grade,” he said. “They’re not little kids, but they’re not adults yet either.
“Have you ever tried standing over eighth-graders and looking at them? It’s like looking into the eyes of a chicken.”
Leno exposed generational-gap humor multiple times, especially when talking about his former job.
He told the story of a 19-year-old Indiana college student named Dennis who was interested in a TV career. Dennis wrote Leno a letter, asking the TV legend to mentor him. Leno had never done anything of the sort, and thought it would be nice. So he arranged for Dennis to spend several days at “The Tonight Show’s” Burbank studio, meeting Leno at the office every morning at 8 a.m.
For Dennis, the lights and cameras and make-up rooms and celebrities were a magical experience. “He was mesmerized,” Leno said.
At one point, Leno tried to offer some wise perspective, to put the show in context for Dennis.
“This is like the Dick Van Dyke Show,” Leno said.
Dennis looked confused.
“Have you ever heard of Dick Van Dyke?” Leno asked.
“No,” Dennis said. “Is that a lesbian joke?”
As the Niagara Falls audience laughed at the story, Leno addressed the men in the crowd.
“Ever wonder what age it is when women stop noticing you?” he asked, then quickly answered his own question. “It’s 52.”
Before that, Leno said, give a smile to a woman and you’ll get one in return. But at 52, she’ll say, “That old guy is smiling at me! Let’s get out of here.”
And as the years stack up, he added, it gets worse.
“At my age,” he said, “women change in front of me.”
Yeah, well, they laugh in front of him too. So do the men.
Leno’s Niagara Falls performance was proof.